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EU MS probe focuses on directories, tying, e-commerce

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Analysis More details are beginning to emerge about the European Commission's shock announcement of an antitrust investigation into Microsoft. The Commission has confirmed that there are several Microsoft-related subjects pending in addition to the one referred to yesterday. It also appears that, although the current investigation was said by competition commissioner Mario Monti to stem from several complaints, Sun is the major source. A Microsoft statement yesterday confirmed that Sun filed a complaint with the Commission last year. Sun itself hasn't commented, but Microsoft says the allegation is that "the advances in the Windows 2000 desktop and server technology will make it harder for Sun to compete." The most obvious of these "advances" are Intellimirror and Active Directory, which tie Windows desktop and server closer together, and which as Windows-only technologies (in order for them to be fully functional, that is) tend to shut other platforms out. Active Directory in particular could become a major bugbear for Microsoft's rivals if the company can get it established. At the moment rival camps are forming around open directory standards and Microsoft ones, and we've been here before, haven't we? Monti's investigation was presented in a somewhat clumsy fashion, with the Commissioner apparently claiming that Microsoft was bundling its OS software with server operating systems and middleware, and it seems pretty clear he didn't entirely understand what his backroom boys had told him to say. Nevertheless, some of the other things he said suggested that the Commission reckons it has bigger fish to fry than just Microsoft using Active Directory to tie client and server together, and hence to dominate both markets. For example: "Whoever gains dominance in the server software market is likely to control e-commerce too." This certainly has something to do with directory services, but not necessarily much to do with tying to Windows 2000 clients. More likely, the Commission is concerned about Microsoft becoming dominant in e-commerce servers thus leveraging dominance in middleware, and achieving a lock on e-commerce services. But the actual client isn't of any great importance to Microsoft here; the company once thought it was, but under Steve Ballmer now seems to be moving to a stance where the client itself could be just about anything, just as long as the services it accesses are Microsoft one. Which of course takes us neatly to what is currently known of Microsoft's strategy. We have last May's "knowledge workers without limits" announcement, for example, which envisaged ubiquitous "digital dashboards" acting as windows (small 'w') on vast and diverse Web data stores running on Microsoft servers. The servers spew out data in XML format, the clients view it, and the beauty of the system, from Microsoft's point of view, is that although it's all about "open" standards, the ability to work from both client and server ends gives Redmond a major advantage. This sounds like something the Commission might have in mind, if Sun's been complaining coherently, and it also puts Microsoft's determination to get Mobile Explorer onto as many phone handsets in a certain perspective. The knowledge workers announcement is however somewhat outmoded - it has been evolving. The Bill Gates resignation/Steve Ballmer promotion statement provides further grist to the Commission's mill, provided it's paying attention (we must presume it is until it proves it's not). As we pointed out at the time, the Next Generation Windows Services scheme Bill headed off to supervise development of is not smoke, but is a serious plan to implement a universal and unifying services plan. This is essentially a big pile of Windows servers and middleware services out there in serverland, accessed by all sorts of diverse clients, and it's still somewhat vague. But Steve Ballmer promises us that more flesh will be put on it at a strategy day this Spring so, again provided the Commission's paying attention, the plans for linkage between client and server, and Windows 2000's status as the foundation of the lot, ought to be of considerable interest to Brussels. ® See also: MS bids for soul of knowledge worker Bill's Big Adventure: Windows as universal Web platform

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